Osborne Clarke has a long and industrious history in Bristol (dating back to 1748!) and it set up shop in London before any other regional firm in 1987. It took advantage of the 90s dotcom boom by opening in Britain's answer to Silicon Valley – yes, that's the Thames Valley – before opening up in the Californian real McCoy.
Since 2012, it has concentrated on four sectors: digital business; energy and utilities; financial services; and real estate and infrastructure. Training principal Nick Johnson asserts: “The sector approach has really been working well for us. It’s something that we have taken much further than other firms. It’s about being selective, and saying no to some things – we’ve chosen our sectors and they are where we focus our energy.”
Discriminating like this is central to OC’s overall aim, which is to develop an in-depth industry knowledge that other firms will find it hard to compete with. Four more sectors will be added in the next few years: life sciences; infrastructure; automotive industries; and retail and recruitment. The firm is big in digital business, and “we’re building up that sector aggressively,” says Johnson. Elsewhere, financial services work is “kicking into action in the London market.”
Broadly speaking, the Bristol office is full-service and is up there with that city's best firms; London has managed to take on a slice of mid-tier M&A and private equity work; while Reading is known for its technology focus. It’s a danger to regard OC as simply a worthy Bristol player, but Johnson notes that “the perception of us as being originally a Bristol-based firm is great in a way, and part of what is special about us. Bristol is very much a key part of our identity, and with Simmons & Simmons arriving in the city, I think that we’re seeing the market come around to our way of thinking.”
OC is also becoming increasingly international. The 'Osborne Clarke Alliance' – a joint venture with a group of foreign firms – is now history, but OC has officially merged with two of the former member firms: Italian outfit SLA Studio Legale Associato and a Spanish firm called, funnily enough, Osborne Clarke Spain. “It’s not a particularly auspicious time to be merging with an Italian or Spanish business,” says Johnson, “but these are highly profitable firms and we’ve known them for quite a while: it will change the outside perception of Osborne Clarke, as we’ll go from just having three offices in the UK and two in Germany, to also having four in Italy and two in Spain.” These latest additions join existing international offices in Silicon Valley and Germany.
Trainees were excited by these latest developments and spoke of potential international secondments and further European growth. “If you look at Osborne Clarke,” said one, “you’ll see that we’re doing really well for a firm of our size. We’re a mid-market firm trying to build up a European profile.”
The days when it was compulsory to move around the offices are long gone. Trainees can still move between the offices, as long as they “make out a good business case for doing so, and if there is the business need.”
Trainees are expected to complete one seat in corporate and one in property (or, in Bristol, tax). “You are bound to get one of your top preferences for the other two seats,” and “you can occasionally do banking instead of corporate.” The firm “certainly doesn’t want to pigeon-hole you: it wants you to test the water and try different things.” Employment, commercial and commercial litigation are especially popular.
There is “some difference in the mix of work the individual offices do, but it's not profound.” All offices have some of the required seats available, and commercial litigation is present in each location. In Reading there are additional seats in employment or commercial (both with a technology slant). In London there’s employment, recruitment and insolvency, while in Bristol trainees enjoy a broader selection including: employment; insolvency; banking; pensions; private client; construction; and incentives.
Corporate is a “key part of the firm.” OC has been instructed by Carphone Warehouse, Talk Talk and energy services company MITIE. It recently represented Dentsu, a Japanese advertising group, on its acquisition of Steak Group, an international digital marketing business. Trainees get to have a “first crack at anything that needs drafting,” such as ancillary documents, and attend completion meetings and liaise with the other side to agree terms and conditions. “Responsibility grows throughout the seat, the hours are not too bad, and there’s a really good team atmosphere.” The amount of public company work is expanding, and although many of the deals come from across all of OC’s sectors, the firm has an especially good track record when it comes to M&A work connected to digital business.
Trainees can take seats in commercial property, residential property or planning. On the commercial side, “clients tend to be big names and you get less involvement on those bigger deals.” OC helped Marks & Spencer negotiate the terms of a lease for a new anchor store in Gloucester. On “smaller, more discrete, matters you get your own files – you’re given a long lead, but the lead is still there and you can’t really sign anything off.” Commercial property also comes with “an awful lot of client contact” and the chance to attend business development events.
Residential property involves working for large house developers, and helping to “draft transfer documents and the standard forms that go to the Land Registry, as well as going on site to look for potential issues, and completing general conveyancing – it’s good fun.” Planning exposes trainees to some “really cutting-edge stuff, simply because of the rules by which planning is granted for large infrastructure projects. Not many firms are doing the kind of work we do, and it’s very exciting.” OC works for Associated British Ports in this respect, helping out on planning projects across all 21 of its UK ports, and dishing out advice on a new wind turbine manufacturing facility at the Port of Hull.
Tax is “technical and challenging,” but “a good way to get to know others throughout the firm” because many of the matters that crop up in tax are connected to the work conducted in other teams. The work is “heavily research-based.” Working with the property team to ascertain “how much stamp duty should be paid” is common, as is working alongside the incentives team to assist with “the various incentive options and schemes that employees may have.”
Disputes in commercial litigation are generally complex and intricate. “It’s the nature of commercial litigation to spend most of your time working on a big case,” said sources, “but there are a few smaller ones that you can get stuck into and have a first stab at everything.” Trainees can draft witness statements, claim forms, advice notes and offer letters, and conduct “lots of research.” Clients include the Co-operative Bank, Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo!. Significant cases of late include a $300m bondholder dispute related to the financing of a development in Russia.
Trainees in London can specialise in IP litigation, which includes “a lot of trade mark work: one client came in quite late in the day with a bunch of trade marks that hadn’t been registered, and a number of issues had arisen out of that.” Sources had also been involved in producing injunction applications, and liked the “variety of pace – some matters go on for years and years, while some last for just a week.”
“It’s a very cool and interesting seat,” said interviewees of the commercial team. “We have quite a few American clients, and work with a lot of start-ups.” On the IP side, trainees help to register trade marks and work on data protection issues for some pretty big clients: Mitsubishi Pharma Europe, Penn Pharmaceuticals and Takeda, a global Japanese pharma company. As you can see from that list, quite a bit of business comes from the life sciences sector, a developing area for the firm. Telecoms lawyers have worked for the likes of Virgin Media and Vodafone, and assisted mobile network operator Everything Everywhere on a partnering agreement with Barclaycard. In IT, OC has represented Dell and Facebook, advising the former on an array of regulatory issues arising out of its Cloud Services offering.
Typical trainee tasks in employment include drafting redundancy letters and “fairly substantial compromise agreements.” There’s also a lot of advisory work to be done, and trainees help counsel clients regularly: “Often you’ll get an employer come to you and they’ll ask, ‘Does the law permit me to do this?’ Then you’ll have to analyse the law in connection to the specific situation. It can be quite challenging.” There can be an international edge to work here, and Bristol lawyers advise clients who are looking to set up shop in Europe via OC’s office in Silicon Valley.
Secondment opportunities fluctuate, but in the past trainees have spent time at Motorola and News International. Johnson says that OC “tries to be selective about secondments, as we get asked a lot for secondees. We usually say no to requests unless there will be a clear benefit for the trainee.”
On yer bike, Slick Rick!
“If you are someone who likes to be slick all the time then this isn’t the place for you,” said one trainee, adding: “If you can’t laugh at yourself then don’t even bother applying.” Most of our sources concurred on this point, and enjoyed the open-plan layout of their offices – “it helps to push away any old-school hierarchy” – to the point that some sources started to sound rather competitive: “The Reading office is VERY open-plan. Much more open-plan than it is in Bristol.”
Trainees underscored the importance of “technical excellence” at the firm, explaining that the sector approach breeds a commitment to “constantly building up and understanding industry knowledge in a culture dedicated to feedback and teaching.” Trainees are expected to be “fearsomely bright,” and attend regular sector meetings to keep their bank of industry expertise updated. A weekly newsletter, ‘OC Confidential’, also ensures that trainees are on top of the latest firm-wide developments.
The Bristol office, in the Temple Quay part of town, is “like a vast spaceship, with lots of funky panels of glass everywhere – I remember being quite awestruck when I first saw it, as there’s a marble-cast atrium which goes up four storeys.” The atrium is often home to the many social events that take place – “any old excuse for drinks and nibbles really” – and recently the Kenyan Olympic team (who just happened to be training in town) popped in for a networking event: “It was odd because I heard drumming at six o’clock and suddenly I saw Kip Keino in the atrium – he’s the coach of the team by the way” (even more appropriately, the double Olympic gold medallist was made an honorary doctor of law by Bristol Uni in 2007). The atrium has also been utilised as an art gallery. Trainees spend their social budget on events including “bowling, dinners, go-karting nights and rock climbing.”
Based at One London Wall, with “DLA Piper above and below,” perks of the City office include a “wonderful balcony which overlooks St Paul’s,” and an ideal location between the Barbican and Moorgate. A few mumblings were heard last year about the lack of reputational weight in London, but trainees say that “the office is expanding, and there has been a real push on the corporate and banking side of things.” Johnson says: “There’s more growth coming out of London than anywhere else. Despite only being in London for 25 years, we’ll soon have more partners here than in Bristol, which will be an important moment for the firm.”
The Reading office has “that intimate and close-knit family feel, but not so much of a strong after-work scene, as most of the staff drive to the office.” It is located at Apex Plaza, which was swanky in the 80s but now is “not the most glamorous of spots,” but conveniently placed next to the railway station. Socially, they are “not divided or segregated: it’s a real mix of partners, associates, NQs and trainees.”
The three offices try to operate as a single entity, and “come together and rent a hotel somewhere along the M4 corridor, usually in Windsor or Wiltshire,” for the annual summer party. There’s always a fancy dress theme which “people take very seriously,” as well as a competitive softball match in which each member of the losing team is awarded “a wooden spoon and a slap around the face. It’s a great way to break the ice, but the Bristol lot always win as they’re very much into their softball. They don’t actually slap us in the face though – I was kidding about that.” This year’s party was especially important, as members of the latest OC additions in Italy and Spain were invited over to mingle.
Trainees were relieved that “once the qualification process starts it’s over ever so quickly – we all knew within about two weeks.” There were more vacancies than there were candidates in 2012, and ten out of 13 qualifiers stayed with the firm.